Monday, July 27, 2009


“One of the things you have taught me is that I don’t always have to learn a piece to perfection,” my student said at her last lesson. She started to play the piano as an adult. At first, she taught herself, half a year ago, she began to take lessons with me. 

Even though I understood what she meant, it was a startling remark, especially when it comes to teaching. Isn’t perfection the goal, and isn’t it your job as teachers to teach people to get things right ?

On the way home on the train the lesson ran through my mind - “Prelude”, her own creation, which she plays first at every lesson. Harmonically it consists of a chord progression in c-minor, broken chords, hand over hand, up and down the keyboard. It was C-major at first, but then she settled for minor, because she liked it better. She started to learn it a few months ago. 

First we tried out different patterns, and chose the ones she liked best. I showed her the key- patterns, white-black-white for c- and f-minor, all white keys for the dominant chord G-major. I wrote the piece down, in case we forgot, especially the beautiful ending that fades away in the high register. 

The invention of the piece was followed by a practice phase. Crossing the hands, and playing the right keys, and keeping the pulse was hard. Clearly the focus was on moving the hands and finding the notes. But in the course of time, the hands started to find their way, and the music began to flow. Last night, it sounded like rolling waves, the hands moving across the keyboard in smooth, elegant, well-timed motions, music from within, music “owned” by the performer. Her finger slipped off the black key in one of the last chords. “Don’t fix it”, was my spontaneous reaction. 

Why is it so hard to let go of the wrong note when it happens, to let it be swept away by the flow of the music? For one thing, it is difficult to integrate a mistake into the piece, because physically, it is a motion you may never have made before, and it disrupts the choreography of the hands that we have trained in practice. But often, there’s more to it. We want to be perfect. We did it wrong, but we want to show that at least we know how to do it right, forgetting that in music, the art that flows in time, the most important thing is to keep the music going.

Tonight was the last week for the “Little Gigue” by Telemann, we decided last week. More broken chords, hands alternating, the other hand plays an accompaniment. This is by far the most complex piece she has ever played. I had chosen it, and then I thought it was too hard. But she was intrigued by the charm of the little piece. It sounds like “real” music, and she loved the challenge. After weeks of practice, the piece flows. Although one would play a Gigue faster, it sounds like a dance, and you can hear the echos the composer suggested. It has reached a first stage of accomplishment. It is as perfect as it can be at the moment. Now, we’ll put it away, move on to other things. Skills develop over time. After a while, you go back to music you couldn’t play before, and you find it has improved just by itself.  I wouldn’t suggest performing the piece in public right now, but it was an important excursion and an outlook to the exciting things to come.      

Of course, we practice to get things right - the timing, the pitches, dynamics and articulation, but it all remains empty if we are not connected to the emotional content of the music. We may play all the right notes and do everything the composer suggested, and still, it will not sound as if the performer “owned” the piece. It will sound like reciting, or even spelling words and sentences whose meaning you don’t understand. 

When you speak, you don’t have to think what to do with your mouth and your tongue in order to form the sounds.  When you own the piece, there are no verbal thoughts between you and the music. Your mind hears the sound, and your body plays it. In those moments of playing there is only sound and motion, you “become” the music. Perfection RESULTS from this state of “mind-body”. Making perfection a goal in itself often exerts pressure that inhibits perfection. It takes the focus off the moment and into the future, anticipating a judgement that can only be made in retrospect.    

Music is the language of emotions. It expresses human feelings. To play everything “correctly” is not enough. “Perfect” performances can miss the point, and imperfect ones express the meaning. In music, perfection is a matter of the heart, rather than a matter of absolute measurements.